Rules of Style

Copy editors are voracious consumers of style manuals, and there’s no shortage of those.

Different professions and academic disciplines have their own style guides and style preferences. In the humanities, MLA style and Chicago style are the most widely used; journalists and magazine writers often follow their publication’s house style, which is most likely loosely modeled on AP style; doctors and anyone else in the field of medical writing typically consult the AMA style manual; and psychologists favor APA style.

Toggling back and forth between the style guides of so many different disciplines and publications can leave one’s head spinning. Which raises the question: is it ever possible to standardize something like a style? And should we? What would the world of letters look like if we stopped italicizing newspaper and book titles? And are stylistic conventions really “rules” in the same way as the rules governing grammar, spelling, and punctuation?

The short answer to the last question is, perhaps, “No.” Whether you italicize The New York Times or not — and whether you lowercase or capitalize the “The” in its title — depends on what publication you are writing for, as well as the syntax of the sentence in which it occurs. Chicago follows the down style for “the” in a newspaper’s title, whereas AP style doesn’t — unless several newspapers are mentioned in the same sentence.

Such guidelines have come to acquire the status of rules, so that a writer following Chicago style would be expected to italicize a newspaper title consistently, but someone writing for the Web might not. AP style does not use italics for newspaper titles, for example.

Dictionaries are useful guides when attempting to standardize spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, and italicization, but here, too, variations in style from country to country are not that uncommon.

Matters of style put an editor’s decision-making abilities to the test and present a situation where knowing the rules is as important as being able to apply them — and break them.

 

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